2022 Career Award Recipient: Michael Mitchell

by Melissa Pappas

Michael Mitchell (Illustration by Melissa Pappas)

Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering, is one of this year’s recipients of the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award. The award is given to early-career faculty researchers who demonstrate the potential to be role models in their field and invest in the outreach and education of their work.

Mitchell’s award will fund research on techniques for “immunoengineering” macrophages. By providing new instructions to these cells via nanoparticles laden with mRNA and DNA sequences, the immune system could be trained to target and eliminate solid tumors. The award will also support graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in his lab over the next five years.

The project aligns with Mitchell’s larger research goals and the current explosion of interest in therapies that use mRNA, thanks to the technological breakthroughs that enabled the development of COVID-19 vaccines.

“The development of the COVID vaccine using mRNA has opened doors for other cell therapies,” says Mitchell. “The high-priority area of research that we are focusing on is oncological therapies, and there are multiple applications for mRNA engineering in the fight against cancer.”

A new wave of remarkably effective cancer treatments incorporates chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapy. There, a patient’s T-cells, a type of white blood cell that fights infections, are genetically engineered to identify, target and kill individual cancer cells that accumulate in the circulatory system.

However, despite CART-T therapy’s success in treating certain blood cancers, the approach is not effective against cancers that form solid tumors. Because T-cells are not able to penetrate tumors’ fibrous barriers, Mitchell and his colleagues have turned to another part of the immune system for help.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Training the Next Generation of Scientists on Soft Materials, Machine Learning and Science Policy

by Melissa Pappas

Developing new soft materials requires new data-driven research techniques, such as autonomous experimentation. Data regarding nanometer-scale material structure, taken by X-ray measurements at a synchrotron, can be fed into an algorithm that identifies the most relevant features, represented here as red dots. The algorithm then determines the optimum conditions for the next set of measurements and directs their execution without human intervention. Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Kevin Yager, who helped develop this technique, will co-teach a course on it as part of a new Penn project on Data Driven Soft Materials Research.

The National Science Foundation’s Research Traineeship Program aims to support graduate students, educate the STEM leaders of tomorrow and strengthen the national research infrastructure. The program’s latest series of grants are going toward university programs focused on artificial intelligence and quantum information science and engineering – two areas of high priority in academia, industry and government.

Chinedum Osuji, Eduardo D. Glandt Presidential Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), has received one of these grants to apply data science and machine learning to the field of soft materials. The grant will provide five years of support and a total of $3 million for a new Penn project on Data Driven Soft Materials Research.

Osuji will work with co-PIs Russell Composto, Professor and Howell Family Faculty Fellow in Materials Science and Engineering, Bioengineering, and in CBE, Zahra Fakhraai, Associate Professor of Chemistry in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences (SAS) with a secondary appointment in CBE, Paris Perdikaris, Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, and Andrea Liu, Hepburn Professor of Physics and Astronomy in SAS, all of whom will help run the program and provide the connections between the multiple fields of study where its students will train.

These and other affiliated faculty members will work closely with co-PI Kristin Field, who will serve as Program Coordinator and Director of Education.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

2022 CAREER Award Recipient: Lukasz Bugaj

by Melissa Pappas

Lukasz Bugaj (illustration by Melissa Pappas)

Therapies that use engineered cells to treat diseases, infections and chronic illnesses are opening doors to solutions for longstanding medical challenges. Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, has been awarded a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for research that may be key to opening some of those doors.

Such cellular therapies take advantage of the complex molecular mechanisms that cells naturally use to interact with one another, enabling them to be more precise and less toxic than traditional pharmaceutical drugs, which are based on simpler small molecules. Cellular therapies that use engineered immune system cells, for example, have recently been shown to be highly successful in treating certain cancers and protecting against viral infections.

However, there is still a need to further fine-tune the behavior of cells in these targeted therapies. Bugaj and colleagues are addressing that need by developing new ways to communicate with engineered cells once they are in the body, such as turning molecular events on and off at specific times.

The research team recently discovered that both temperature and light can act as triggers of a specific fungal protein, dynamically controlling its location within a mammalian cell. By using light or temperature to instruct that protein to migrate toward or away from the cell’s membrane, Bugaj and his colleagues showed how it could serve as a key component in controlling the behavior of human cells.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

2022 Graduate Research Fellowships for Bioengineering Students

Congratulations to the two Bioengineering students to receive 2022 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) fellowships. The prestigious NSF GRFP program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported fields. The eighteen Penn 2022 honorees were selected from a highly-competitive pool of over 12,000 applications nationwide. Further information about the program can be found on the NSF website.

 Gianna Therese Busch, PhD student, Bioengineering
Gianna is a member of the systems biology lab of Arjun Raj, Professor in Bioengineering and Genetics. Her research focuses on single-cell differences in cancer metabolism and drug resistance.

 

 

 

Shawn Kang, BSE/MSE, Bioengineering (’22)
Shawn conducted research in the BIOLines Lab of Dan Huh, Associate Professor in Bioengineering, where he worked to develop more physiologically relevant models of human health and disease by combining organs-on-a-chip and organoid technology.

 

 

 

The following Bioengineering students also received Honorable Mentions:
Michael Steven DiStefano, PhD student
Rohan Dipak Patel, PhD student
Abraham Joseph Waldman, PhD student

Read the full list of NSF GRFP Honorees on the Grad Center at Penn website.

NSF Grant Will Support Research into Sustainable Manufacturing of 3D Solid-state Sodium-ion Batteries and Battery Workforce Training

by Melissa Pappas

The Department of Materials Science and Engineering’s Eric Detsi will lead a team of researchers, including MSE’s Eric Stach and Russell Composto, to develop more eco-friendly batteries that are based on sodium, rather than lithium.

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are becoming more ubiquitous, thanks to their use in emerging applications such as battery electric vehicles and grid-scale energy storage, however, these batteries are inefficiently manufactured and unsustainably sourced.

The typical battery cell consists of a separator membrane filled with liquid electrolyte, sandwiched between the negative anode and positive cathode. This design has several drawbacks, including a complex and energy-intensive manufacturing process, inefficient recycling, and increased safety risks as the liquid electrolyte is flammable and crystallization between the electrodes can lead to explosions. Finally, there are substantial geopolitical and environmental risks associated with the global supply chain for lithium-ion battery materials, such as cobalt and lithium.

The solid-state battery design addresses these issues. In solid-state batteries, the flammable liquid electrolyte is replaced by a solid electrolyte, making them safer and more energy efficient. Sodium-ion batteries address the issue of sustainable material sourcing as sodium is more abundant than lithium and cobalt, the materials used in lithium-ion batteries. Both solid-state lithium-ion batteries and sodium-ion batteries are very attractive for battery electric vehicles and grid-scale energy storage applications.

However, current solid-state battery designs also suffer from two major drawbacks: a low capacity for power storage and a resistance to charge transfer.

 To tackle the unsustainability in battery materials and the inefficiency of the current solid-state design, the National Science Foundation has awarded a team of Penn Engineers $2.7 Million in funding through its Future Manufacturing program. The team will be led by Eric Detsi, Stephenson Term Assistant Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), and will include Eric Stach, Professor in MSE and Director of the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter, and Russell Composto, Howell Family Faculty Fellow and Professor in MSE with appointments in the Departments of Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

“Our team will investigate a novel ‘Eco Manufacturing’ route to a 3D solid-state sodium-ion battery based on polymer solid-electrolytes,” says Detsi. “Our Eco Manufacturing approach will enable us to create batteries from only abundant elements, achieve ultralong battery cycle life, prevent sodium-dendrite-induced short-circuiting by using a ‘self-healing’ metal anode that can transform into liquid when the battery is operating, and efficiently recycle the battery’s anode and cathode. We will also improve the manufacturing process by using time- and energy-efficient processes including direct ink writing, solid-state conversion, and infiltration.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Penn Takes Part in National Science Foundation’s First I-Corps Hubs

by Evan Lerner

A decade ago, the National Science Foundation started its Innovation Corps program to help translate academic research into the wider world. Functioning as a national start-up accelerator, I-Corps provides training and funding to researchers who have a vision for applying their ideas, starting businesses and maximizing social impact. 

Several successful start-ups launched by Penn Engineering students, including Strella BiotechnologyInventXYZ, and Percepta AI have participated in the I-Corps program.

Now, to further develop innovation ecosystems and share regional resources, the NSF has launched a network of five I-Corps Hubs.

Penn is a member of the Mid-Atlantic Hub, which will be led by the University of Maryland at College Park, and include Carnegie Mellon University, George Washington University, Howard University, Johns Hopkins University, North Carolina State University, Penn State, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Virginia Tech.

The Penn Center for Innovation is currently accepting applications to join the next I-Corps cohort, which begins in October 2021. Teams will receive up to $2,000 to support their start-up, and can apply online.

This story originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

N.B.:  Founded by Penn alumna Katherine Sizov (Bio 2019) and winner of a 2019 President’s Innovation Prize, Strella Biotech seeks to reduce food waste through innovative biosensors, and was initially developed in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory, the bio-makerspace and primary teaching lab of the Department of Bioengineering. Read more BE blog stories featuring Strella Biotechnology.

New Grant Aims to Broaden Participation in Cutting-Edge Materials Research

University of Puerto Rico’s Edgardo Sánchez (left) and Penn graduate Zhiwei Liao working in the lab of Daeyeon Lee. Via the Advancing Device Innovation through Inclusive Research and Education program, researchers from Penn and the University of Puerto Rico will continue their materials science collaboration while supporting STEM career pathways for underrepresented groups. (Image credit: Felice Macera).

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded grants to eight research teams to support partnerships that will increase diversity in cutting-edge materials research, education, and career development. One of those teams is Penn’s Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter (LRSM) and the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), whose long-running collaboration has now received an additional six years of support.

With the goal of supporting partnerships between minority-serving educational institutions and leading materials science research centers, NSF’s Partnership for Research & Education in Materials (PREM) program funds innovative research programs and provides institutional support to increase recruitment, retention, and graduation by underrepresented groups as well as providing underserved communities access to materials research and education.

‘Research at the frontier’

With this PREM award, known as the Advancing Device Innovation through Inclusive Research and Education (ADIIR) program, researchers from Penn and UPR’s Humacao and Cayey campuses will conduct research on the properties of novel carbon-based materials with unique properties, and will study the effects of surface modification in new classes of sensors, detectors, and purification devices.

Thanks to this collaboration of more than 20 years, both institutions have made significant scientific and educational progress aided by biannual symposia and regular pre-pandemic travel between both institutions before the pandemic, resulting in a rich portfolio of publications, conference presentations, patents, students trained, and outreach programs.

“Together we have been publishing good papers that have impact, and we’ve really cultivated a culture of collaboration and friendship between our institutions,” says Penn’s Arjun Yodh, former director of the LRSM. “Our goal is to carry out research at the frontier and, in the process, nurture promising students from Puerto Rico and Penn.”

Ivan Dmochowski, a chemistry professor at Penn who has been involved with PREM for several years, says that this program has helped his group connect with experts in Puerto Rico whose skills complement his group’s interests in protein engineering. Dmochowski has also hosted UPR faculty members and students in his lab and also travelled to Puerto Rico before the pandemic to participate in research symposia, seminars, and outreach events.

“I’ve had students who have benefitted from being a co-author on a paper or having a chance to mentor students, and the faculty we’ve interacted with are exceptional,” Dmochowski says. “There’s a lot of benefit for both me and my students, and I’ve enjoyed our interactions both personally and scientifically.”

Penn’s Daeyeon Lee, a chemical and biomolecular engineering professor who has been involved with PREM for several years, regularly hosts students and faculty from UPR while working on nanocarbon-based composite films for sensor applications. The success of this collaboration relies on unique materials made by researchers at UPR combined with a method for processing them into composite structures developed in Lee’s lab.

“What I really admire about people at PREM, both faculty and students, is their passion,” says Lee. “I think that’s had a really positive impact on my students and postdocs who got to interact with them because they got to see the passion that the students brought.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Daeyeon Lee is a professor and the Evan C Thompson Term Chair for Excellence in Teaching in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and a member of the Bioengineering Graduate Group in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Arjun Yodh is the James M. Skinner Professor of Science in the Department of Physics & Astronomy in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences and a member of the Bioengineering Graduate Group in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Emeritus Faculty Member Susan Margulies Named NSF Directorate of Engineering

Susan Margulies, Ph.D. (Credit Emory University)

Susan Margulies, Professor Emeritus in Bioengineering, has been selected to lead the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate of Engineering, “the first biomedical engineer to head the directorate.” Margulies is chair of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University. She earned her master’s and doctoral degrees from Penn Bioengineering before joining the department as an Assistant Professor in 1993.

In a press release from Emory University, Margulies stated that, “The opportunity to serve the NSF resonates with my values — catalyzing impact through innovation, rigor, partnership, and inclusion.” The announcement continues:

“Building on initiatives she developed at the University of Pennsylvania, Margulies prioritized career development for faculty and Ph.D. graduates during her years leading Coulter BME. She added dedicated staff to help doctoral students prepare for increasingly popular career paths outside of academia. The department increased the diversity of Ph.D. students and improved faculty diversity at all ranks during her tenure. Margulies oversaw hiring of 20 new faculty members and launched formalized mentoring for early career professors, including creating a new associate chair position dedicated to faculty development.”

Margulies will step down from her position as chair in Coulter BME though she will remain in the Georgia Tech and Emory faculty. Her Injury Biomechanics Lab studies “the influence of mechanical factors on the structure and function of human tissues from the macroscopic to microscopic level, with an emphasis on the brain and lungs.”

Read the full announcement in the Emory News Center.

Read the NSF press release here.

2021 CAREER Award recipient: Alex Hughes, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering

by Melissa Pappas

Alex Hughes (illustration by Melissa Pappas)

The National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award is given to early-career researchers in order to kickstart their careers in innovative and pivotal research while giving back to the community in the form of outreach and education. Alex Hughes, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering and in Cell and Developmental Biology, is among the Penn Engineering faculty members who have received the CAREER Award this year.

Hughes plans to use the funds to develop a human kidney model to better understand how the development of cells and tissues influences congenital diseases of the kidney and urinary tract.

The model, known as an “organoid,” is a lab-grown piece of human kidney tissue on the scale of millimeters to centimeters, grown from cultured human cells.

“We want to create a human organoid structure that has nephrons, the filters of the kidney, that are properly ‘plumbed’ or connected to the ureteric epithelium, the tubules that direct urine towards the bladder,” says Hughes. “To achieve that, we have to first understand how to guide the formation of the ureteric tubule networks, and then stimulate early nephrons to fuse with those networks. In the end, the structures will look like ‘kidney subunits’ that could potentially be injected and fused to existing kidneys.”

The field of bioengineering has touched on questions similar to those posed by Hughes, focusing on drug testing and disease treatment. Some of these questions can be answered with the “organ-on-a-chip” approach, while others need an even more realistic model of the organ. The fundamentals of kidney development and questions such as “how does the development of nephrons affect congenital kidney and urinary tract anomalies?” require an organoid in an environment as similar to the human body as possible.

“We decided to start with the kidney for a few reasons,” says Hughes. “First, because its development is a beautiful process; the tubule growth is similar to that of a tree, splitting into branches. It’s a complex yet understudied organ that hosts incredibly common developmental defects.

“Second,” he says, “the question of how things form and develop in the kidney has major medical implications, and we cannot answer that with the ‘organ-on-a-chip’ approach. We need to create a model that mimics the chemical and mechanical properties of the kidney to watch these tissues develop.”

The fundamental development of the kidney can also answer other questions related to efficiency and the evolution of this biological filtration system.

“We have the tendency to believe that systems in the human body are the most evolved and thus the most efficient, but that is not necessarily true,” says Hughes. “If we can better understand the development of a system, such as the kidney, then we may be able to make the system better.”

Hughes’ kidney research will lay the foundation for broader goals within regenerative medicine and organ transplantation.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

A Record 15 BE Students Receive 2020 NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

The Department of Bioengineering at Penn is incredibly proud of its fifteen current and future graduate student recipients of the 2020 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP). This total surpasses last year’s record of twelve students. In addition, one current student was selected for honorable mention and one additional incoming student has been named a Fullbright Scholar.

The prestigious NSF GRFP program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported fields. Further information about the program can be found on the NSF website. BE is thrilled to congratulate our excellent students on these well-deserved accolades! Continue reading below for a list of 2020 recipients and descriptions of their research.

Current Students:

William Benman

William Benman is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Assistant Professor of Bioengineering, Lukasz Bugaj. His work in the Bugaj lab focuses on developing novel optogenetic tools to control and study cell function.

Paul Gehret

Paul Gehret is a Ph.D. student and Ashton Fellow in the lab of Riccardo Gottardi, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine. Paul works on pediatric cartilage and airway tissue engineering for children with subglottic stenosis. He and his team apply classic tissue engineering principles to the airway.

Rebecca Haley

Rebecca Haley is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Michael J. Mitchell, Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in Bioengineering. Her current project aims to use polymer and/or lipid nanoparticles for the intracellular delivery of proteins. Successful delivery of proteins (such as antibodies) in this fashion may allow for targeting of previously undruggable intracellular targets.

Patrick John Mulcahey

Patrick John Mulcahey is a Research Assistant and Graduate Student in the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) Epilepsy Research Lab of Douglas A. Coulter, Professor of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine. His work focuses on developing techniques that combine electrophysiology with two-photon excitation microscopy to study a potential biomarker of the seizure onset zone in models of drug-refractory epilepsy.

Catherine Porter

Catherine Porter is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Alex J. Hughes, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering. She is working on developing high-throughput methods to produce and characterize human-cell-derived kidney organoids for disease modeling and genetic screening. Currently, she is focused on engineering physicochemical control to improve organoid homogeneity.

Sarah Shepherd

Sarah Shepherd is a Ph.D. student who is co-advised in the Michael J. Mitchell lab and the lab of David Issadore, Associate Professor of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering (ESE). Her research aims to combine microfabrication with biomaterial design of lipid nanoparticles to address major shortcomings in the field of nanomedicine. Currently, she is prototyping a scale-up microfluidic device to produce lipid nanoparticles for gene therapy.

Michael Tobin

Michael Tobin is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Dennis E. Discher, Robert D. Bent Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), Bioengineering, and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM). His current research examines phenomena leading to mechano-induced genomic variation in multiple cell subtypes. Through better understanding of characteristic pathways and subsequent cell responses, he hopes to improve treatments for malignant solid tumors.

John Viola, a Ph.D. student in the Hughes lab, was listed as an honorable mention.

Incoming Students:

Additionally, eight NSF GRFP honorees from other institutions will be joining our department in the fall of 2020. We congratulate them as well and look forward to welcoming them to Penn:

Finally, incoming Ph.D. student Dora Racca was awarded a Fullbright Scholarship. Dora will will have rotations in the BIOLines Laboratory of Dongeun (Dan) Huh, Associate Professor of Bioengineering and the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratory of Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Professor of Bioengineering.

We would like to send congratulations once again to all our current and future graduate students on another year of outstanding research!